Wednesday 9 November 2022

David - Lalla-Roukh (Wexford, 2022)

Félicien David - Lalla-Roukh

Wexford Festival Opera, 2022

Steven White, Orpha Phelan, Gabrielle Philiponet, Pablo Bemsch, Ben McAteer, Emyr Wyn Jones, Thomas D Hopkinson, Niamh O’Sullivan, Lorcan Cranitch

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 4th November 2022

There was colour and variety in the various approaches that the different directors took to the very different kind of operas offered by Wexford Festival Opera on the mainstage this year, but Orpha Phelan's take on Félicien David's Lalla-Roukh was more colourful and more adventurous than all the others combined. Where it was perhaps more successful was in how the production rose to the meet challenges posed not just in making a rare and largely forgotten opera attractive to a modern audience, but in how it addressed the specific challenges of David's opera without apparently losing any of the essential character of the original. 

On the one hand, it needed a more sensitive approach to cultural diversity in relation to the Middle East that were somewhat lacking in the rather literal approach taken to the production of Armida - in as far as you can take any opera involving magic and dragons literally. On the other hand, the plot of Lalla-Roukh itself, an opéra-comique with long passages of dialogue and exposition between songs, is not the most involved, with not too many twists and a 'surprise' conclusion that will surprise no-one. But it would be a shame all the same to go too far and lose the essential colour and character of the Arabian Nights-like tale.

Director Orpha Phelan went for a local approach, a fantasy approach, a fairy tale approach, basically anything that would work, neglecting no opportunity to add amusing visual jokes and nice little details that might be easily overlooked. It's a risky approach as there is a danger of overloading a light opera entertainment with more that it can withstand, but with good musical direction, the usual high standard of singing and choral support, and Orpha Phelan's unerring sense of taste and balance, Félicien David's opera proved to be an absolute joy.

It was a little disconcerting though for a Middle Eastern fantasy to open in an old-fashioned Bewley's-style café called Leila O'Rourke's Tea Emporium. Outside a homeless person searches through the contents of a modern wheelie bin while inside the shop explodes with the entrance of colourful characters in fancy dress costumes where they appear to have grabbed anything to hand in a mix-and-match without worrying too much about the matching aspect. The homeless man, who finds a few leftovers from the bin, has also retrieved Thomas Moore's book from the dumper and proceeds to relate the story of Lalla Rookh, explaining the unusual nature of the colourful costumed characters as mythical creatures that accompany Lalla-Roukh on her journey to be married to the King.

Although some of the large number of foreign visitors who regularly come to Wexford understandably struggled a little with the man's broad Irish accent loaded with a plenty of colloquialisms, it proved to be an excellent way of avoiding all the talking passages that risk disrupting the flow and character of the drama. It was also very witty, with knowing winks and - still very much in character - a little more direct in the insinuations and suggestions that would seem more obvious to a modern audience. There is even one scene where the illusion being spun breaks down, as the man confronts his own past while relating the story, the look in Lalla's eyes recalling a moment that perhaps sent him on his downward trajectory. It a lovely touch, suggesting that there is a human reality behind the magical fantasy, but there's just not quite enough there to totally carry this off.

That's because for all Phelan's dressing it up, the plot is quite simple. In Act 1, Lalla-Roukh, the daughter of the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb, has been promised in marriage to the King of Bukhara. It's Lord Baskir's job to get Lalla there intacta, which means keeping her away from the troublesome minstrel that has been following the entourage and beguiling the promised wife of the king. The Act is filled with entertaining songs, none of which are necessary to drive any drama forward. That would have been done in the dialogue/recitative in the original and is taken up by the homeless book-finder narrator here.

In Act 2 Phelan reduces the back-and-forth over Lalla's constant struggle with Baskir to get out of her obligation to marry the king, leaving more room for the music and some marvellously choreographed scenes to entertain in their own right, entertainment surely being the entire point of the opera. It slips neatly then to resolution when the king is revealed to be the singer, who followed the travelling retinue in disguise to be sure that Lalla loved him as a person. It might have been a surprise only to anyone who hadn't seen a similar ruse employed a few hours earlier in the same theatre in Alma Deutscher's Cinderella.

The star of the evening in what was definitely the star opera of the Festival, Gabrielle Philiponet sang the role of Lalla-Roukh wonderfully. Having a native French singer helped, but there is a particular kind of enunciation and expression required for this kind of opéra-comique and Philiponet was perfect for this, helping retain much of the original character of Félicien David's opera. The noted Irish actor Lorcan Cranitch also fulfilled the other essential element of the opera in his turn as the narrator in an excellent performance that helped establish a certain wistful storyteller tone on the work that made it feel like something important and meaningful, while preventing it from sounding like an old-fashioned period opera. It was a superb cast all round, Pablo Bemsch excellent as the singer (rather than old-fashioned 'minstrel') Nourreddin, Ben McAteer playing up the role of the hapless Baskir wonderfully, and Niamh O’Sullivan providing fine support as Lalla's lady-in-waiting, Mirza.

Conducted by Steven White, the orchestral performance in the pit was, as ever, a delight, the music filling the lovely acoustics of the O'Reilly Theatre. The chorus did Andrew Synott proud in the ensemble and supporting roles, as well as in performance for the director, who certainly didn't make it easy for them, finding something entertaining for them all to do throughout rather than just standing around. All this was vital to the whole tone of the work, keeping everything entertaining and engaging, never for a moment giving you pause other than to laugh out loud. For me, it was a perfect end to the festival, the kind of ending that will guarantee anticipation for three more fascinating and rarely performed works already announced for the 72nd Wexford Festival 'Women & War' programme.

Tuesday 8 November 2022

Deutscher - Cinderella (Wexford, 2022)

Alma Deutscher - Cinderella (Wexford, 2022)

Wexford Festival Opera, 2022

Andrew Synnott, Davide Gasparro, Megan O’Neill, Corina Ignat, Leah Redmond, Sarah Luttrell, Michael Bell, Peter Lidbetter, Deirdre Arratoon, Peter McCamley, Eoin Foran, William Kyle

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 4th November 2022

It probably shouldn't have come as a surprise considering the quality of the Pocket Opera elements of the Festival (Cellier's The Spectre Knight and Caruso's The Master), but I was impressed with another work that was not 'mainstage' - although it was performed in the main O'Reilly Theatre to a large audience - but part of the Wexford Factory development programme for new talent. Fairy tale operas aren't often the vehicle for greatness, although in the case of Cinderella Rossini and Massenet produced some of their best work with La Cenerentola and Cendrillon, not to mention Mozart's own fairy tale opera The Magic Flute to attest to what can be done in the field by a composer of extraordinary talent, and Alma Deutscher leans towards the latter in this youth work.

Composed at the age of 11, the was no concern about the quality of Deutscher's first opera; it's not as if her Cinderella would be performed in Vienna, Salzburg and indeed Wexford if it wasn't of a high standard, but I was very pleasantly surprised nonetheless by just how accomplished this opera was in musical character and in terms of doing something original with the concept. It's probably indeed her youth, Deutscher drawing from her own nature and character, from her experience and dreams (and talent), that allow her to put a fresh and meaningful spin on the Cinderella story. A fairy tale or a fairy tale opera is nothing without a message, and being young, it's a hopeful, optimistic and uplifting one.

Using what she knows then, Deutscher's version very cleverly couches the story within the world of musical creativity. Her Cinderella is a young composer, given drudgery tasks like copying scores by her stepmother for her two aspiring diva stepsisters to sing. Nonetheless her head is filled with melodies that take shape when she is given a book of poetry by an old lady she helps in the woods. The poetry has been written by the Prince, who handed it over to the woman looking for fuel to heat herself, assuming that he had no further need for them himself. Unusually, the Prince even has motivation in this version, being forced by his father to find a wife and carry on the family line, leaving him no more time for such frivolity.

Aside from the clever idea of matching the words of music to poetry - a much more convincing twist on a shoe fitting just one person as a way of finding the love match, although it doesn't totally reject this convention either - it's a tremendous way to celebrate the magic of opera, of art, creativity and imagination combining to generate something magical, something that has the potential to lift you out of everyday life. The music and English libretto fully live up to this ambition with witty situations and spins on the original, all beautifully arranged and melodic in chamber orchestra form. There's a lot of waltz-time music, light, happy music and romantic music; it's just a joy.

The singing was exceptionally good across every role, particularly from the two leads. The romantic leads can sometimes appear a little bland in fairy take works - even in The Magic Flute - but Cinderella and the Prince have a little more personality and character here and that was brought out with with lovely singing from Megan O’Neill and Michael Bell. Leah Redmond and Sarah Luttrell have plenty of fun with the stepsisters Griselda and Zibaldona - of course - but were almost outdone in the comic stakes by Peter Lidbetter as the King and Peter McCamley in a non-singing role as the Royal Minister. Corina Ignat as the stepmother and Deirdre Arratoon as the old lady/fairy took the remaining roles in this well-cast performance perfectly.

Cinderella is simply a charming opera and it was charmingly directed and performed. Davide Gasparro took a chance on placing it all within the context of a dream rather than a straight fairy tale, but that helped overcome the number of slightly sickly and overlong happy-ever-after scenes, the only real weakness in the opera. A little touch of realism was needed here. Or, depending on what you want from an opera, maybe not. Either way, there was a wonderful lightness of touch to the humour and the comic situations elsewhere and it fitted well with Eleonora Rossi's creative use of an all-purpose bed/stage. In every aspect, from creation to performance, this Wexford Factory production fully merited a place on the main opera stage of the National Opera House.

That lightness of touch was employed also in the musical direction of Andrew Synnott with the chamber orchestra arrangements. Synnott - who has had his own opera work performed at Wexford in recent years (Dubliners, La Cucina) - again making a strong contribution here and elsewhere in the vital choral management of the mainstage operas during the Festival. Everything was kept simple, every note and gesture aiming to engage and entertain. There was some lovely comic interplay, the witty dialogue was delivered well, every character made an impression. If the intention was to demonstrate the power and the beauty of opera through the marriage of music and words, Cinderella made a convincing case for itself.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera

Monday 7 November 2022

Halévy - La Tempesta (Wexford, 2022)

Fromental Halévy - La Tempesta

Wexford Festival Opera, 2022

Francesco Cilluffo, Roberto Catalano, Nikolay Zemlianskikh, Hila Baggio, Giorgi Manoshvili, Giulio Pelligra, Jade Phoenix, Rory Musgrave, Richard Shaffrey, Gianluca Moro, Emma Jüngling, Dan D'Souza

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 3rd November 2022

You never know if you might discover an unknown gem at Wexford and with Fromental Halévy it could go either way. On the one hand he can provide an interesting work like La Juive, on the other hand something like Clari isn't likely to improve with age. His grand opéra version of Shakespeare's The Tempest it has to be said, turns out to be, at best, serviceable. That's not exactly high praise, but then few operatic adaptations of Shakespeare's plays come anywhere near to the level required and an unknown work from Halévy - despite being a fine composer for his time - isn't likely to come up with any musical equivalent for the noises, sounds and sweet airs of Shakespeare's late work on the poetic contemplation on his craft. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be attempted (Wikipedia notes that at least forty-six operas or semi-operas based on The Tempest exist) and often such works can still surprise when revived here at Wexford. La Tempesta is at least given a vigorous shake and a worthy hearing that drops out a few points of interest.

Like most adaptations of Shakespeare to opera, the play itself is shaken up so much that it loses a lot of its original character, purpose and poetry. You basically have to forget Shakespeare or just see his play as a starting point for a fresh interpretation of the story. All the more so since Halévy is working in the field of grand opéra here and restricted to some degree by the conventions of the form. Strangely however, or perhaps mercifully, it is not a five-act grand opera, there are no ballet scenes and the libretto is in Italian - the libretto commissioned as such for London theatre - rather than French as you would have expected. With the drunken Stephano included, there is at least a good excuse for the obligatory drinking song.

There are no new characters added as some opera adaptations have done - it's not wise to mess too much with the Bard on his home soil - but one notable 'addition' is Sycorax or Sicorace, the witch who formerly presided over the island, mother of Caliban. She is not present in Shakespeare's play by the time Prospero has been long exiled there, wresting control and imprisoning the witch in a rock, but she is included in La Tempesta, at least in voice. There is an inventive scene where Sicorace advises her son Caliban to help both of them break free from the power of Prospero and Ariel, directing him to a flower whose petals can grant the owner three wishes. Caliban of course is such a villain that he refuses to help his own mother and rescue her from her captivity, and instead uses the powers for his own pleasure.

Here, as they often do in theatre productions of The Tempest, Caliban and Ariel tend to overshadow the rather dull naive romantic situation between Miranda and Ferdinand, as well as the power games played by Prospero and the older shipwrecked nobles of Naples. Or perhaps not so much overshadow as extend the range, a double act that take high and low contrasting positions on either side of - or perhaps beyond - the familiar scale of human nature. Ariel is a spiritual creature, lyrical and magical, aspiring to higher sense of order and associated musically and singing voice with high notes. Caliban is low and dark, unthinking and uncaring about anything other than his own base instincts.

Other than the voice range however, Halévy doesn't bring quite the same kind of musical creativity to La Tempesta that Shakespeare brings to his poetic imagining and representation of a world where such capabilities exist in all their fearsome richness. Roberto Catalano's presentation of the work as director for this Wexford Festival Opera production attempts to fill that out a little, representing the unseen magic and spirits on the enchanted island as figures in dark clothing that accompany, observe and occasionally intervene in the drama, compensating to some degree for the dearth of musical creativity that should lift the story into other realms.

Having said that, you couldn't ask for a better musical interpretation that draws the full potential out of Halévy's score than you get here from musical director and conductor, Francesco Cilluffo. The score is fairly attacked by the orchestra to play up all the range and impact of the grand opéra, this one all the better for its lack of indulgences. There is also some fine singing to enjoy, Giorgi Manoshvili's Caliban taking honours as far as I was concerned, alongside Jade Phoenix as an excellent Ariel. Nikolay Zemlianskikh is a fine Prospero, although the character is rather bland in Halévy's version. Hila Baggio's singing was a little on the light side, but she shone with some fine coloratura. Giulio Pelligra bravely (hopefully not unwisely) took to the stage as Ferdinand despite being noticeably unwell.

No-one can say that Wexford didn't give La Tempesta a fair hearing and showing. Emanuele Sinisi's sets worked alongside Catalano's direction to enhance the score and libretto as far as possible, finding their own way of getting the magic of the enchanted island setting across. The opening scene of the storm that brings down the King of Naples' ship was dramatic and yet not exactly as you might expect it to be staged, with magical figures of the chorus in black visiting the beds of the King and his crew and wrapping them in black binbags. With bricks and a broken wall with 'Nostalgia' engraved on it, a huge head statue that seemed to just be randomly left there (almost like something parodied in Viva la Diva at Buxton this summer), the production nonetheless captured the grandeur of the score and found its own ways of placing it in a magical setting.

Much as you shouldn't and much as you might try, it's hard not to set Shakespeare's and Halévy's versions of The Tempest side-by-side and La Tempesta inevitably suffers from the comparison. On its own terms, taking into account the changes that have to be employed in adapting any work and operate within the musical conventions of the time, it is possible to enjoy the work and appreciate its message of putting aside our instinctive impulses and embracing nature, reconciliation and balance. There is balance and measure in Halévy's score at least and plenty to enjoy in the singing and musical interpretation, as well as the fine staging of this rare work at Wexford.

Caruso - The Master (Wexford, 2022)

Alberto Caruso - The Master

Wexford Festival Opera, 2022

Alberto Caruso, Conor Hanratty, Thomas Birch, James Wafer, Annabella-Vesela Ellis, Lawrence Gillians, Andrii Kharlamov, Dan D'Souza, Isabel Araujo, Anna Gregg, Zita Syme, Emma Walsh, Arlene Belli, Dominica Williams, Gabriel Seawright, Stephen Walker, Chris Mosz, Emma Jüngling, Deirdre Higgins

Jerome Hynes Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 3rd November 2022

I can't say I had any prior expectations of The Master before attending one of the first performances of the new work at the 71st Wexford Festival Opera. I'm not familiar with Alberto Caruso (despite later discovering that I was sitting beside him at the performance of The Spirit Knight the day before) and I haven't read Colm Tóibín's book - or indeed any of his work - although I have read a lot of Henry James, the subject of his award-winning book of the same name. I had previously read several articles by Tóibín talking about his appreciation of opera and, being a native of this part of the world (just up the road in Enniscorthy), his early visits to this opera festival. Collaborating with Caruso on an adaptation of The Master as a chamber opera, not even a main stage opera at the festival but as one of their 'pocket opera' programme, it was nonetheless something to look forward to, and I was at least assured of the highest quality of performance. We got that, but also a whole lot more than I expected.

Still, I had my doubts that composer and librettist could sustain interest or indeed compress the span of the undoubtedly complex nature of the life of Henry James over a two hour long opera with no intermission. The opening didn't seem promising as the author is visited in Venice in 1899 by the ghost of an old friend Constance Fenimore Woolson. James is still smarting from the abject failure of his misguided attempt at theatre, his play Guy Domville greeted with derision from the London public in 1895, his bitterness intensified by Oscar Wilde enjoying success with what he feels is an inferior comedy An Ideal Husband just around the corner. Grudges and hard feelings between Victorian writers (even as great as James and Wilde) hardly seem to be a hot subject to bring up in a new opera, but in a sense that is what the ghost tells James and goes on to show him; that greater art will endure.

That's still a tricky thing to put into an opera, particularly since James, his private life and his sexuality were for obvious reasons kept hidden and private, with only hints and suspicions that reveal more of the man in his letters. Tóibín points out likely reasons for this, taking up the suggestion of James' supposed homosexual inclinations and taking into consideration what happened to Oscar Wilde around this time. As many writers considered exile to France in the wake of Wilde's trials and imprisonment, with talk circulating of a supposed list of figures being drawn up for investigation for similar crimes against Victorian morality, James felt secure in his celibacy that he had no indiscretions to be found out. As a European at heart, constantly travelling, James needed no further incentive following the failure of his play to continue his travels on the continent.

It's only then that you see the opportunities that open up for the opera, just as they did for a naturalised Englishman of American origin who writes about tragic figures bound by society's manners and rules whose lives are enriched, romantically, culturally and sometimes fatally by the history and diversity of Venice, Rome and Florence. The Master takes those locations in, and the diversity and the impact they have on James is put across beautifully in concise, relevant scenes taken from his life, set against the background of his great works, all set to a rich variety of musical themes by Alberto Caruso.

For a chamber opera, there are a surprising number of diverse scenes, which means that there are also a larger than usual number of principal singing roles. Among them is James' awkward bedroom encounter with Oliver Wendell Holmes, the death of his sister Alice and his meeting with the sculptor Hendrik Andersen. Despite being presented a chamber opera and featuring in the Wexford festival's side programme of 'pocket operas' and despite being performed with piano accompaniment music only (played by the composer), it seemed to me that this had the range and ambition of a full scale opera in conception and in execution. All the ensemble characters and the social situations with chorus who come into contact with James have an important part to play in defining who he is and who he is not, in as far as can be speculated upon. Taking on the difficult challenge of writing a libretto from his own novel, Colm Tóibín makes a convincing case not just for which scenes to include, but in how to make them work in isolation and in terms of the work as a whole.

While I think those choices are superb - every scene having something of interest to impart on James, on art, on love, on friendship, on life in general - Caruso's score, even in piano reduction, brings it all together, making it feel less a series of isolated scenes than something that has that bigger picture in mind. Between them Caruso and Tóibín's familiarity with opera conventions, there is clearly the ambition to use and enrich the work with its distinctive qualities, the creators being consistently creative in overlapping exchanges, quartets, choral arrangements. And they are not used lightly, but in the service of getting to the heart of what is important in each scene and how it contributes to the whole.

Away from the stage, it's hard to convey with words alone how the creators have managed to turn such a story into a compelling opera - and a modern opera that runs to almost two hours - but there is not a dull moment anywhere. Of course, a lot of the success of the work and its performance here is down to the cast and they are superb, not just Thomas Birch as Henry James and Annabella-Vesela Ellis as Constance Fenimore Woolson - whose challenges are considerable considering they are on stage singing for most of the running time - but all the supporting roles were undertaken with great character and thrilling singing. Caruso brought the full character of the score to light in his piano playing. Mostly however, the success is down to how well the creators and performers make use of the unique ability of opera to conjure scenes and bring them to life. Magic & Music is the main theme of this year's Wexford Festival Opera, and The Master created its own kind of magic.

The intimacy of the smaller Jerome Hynes Theatre at the National Opera House undoubtedly helped. There was little required in the way of sets or props, but everything that was needed to draw you in was there in the singing, in the beautiful period costume design, in the excellent choreography and direction by Conor Hanratty that ensured that this flowed through without any need for an interval. I'm sure however that the quality of this work is enough to expand equally successfully to a larger stage and orchestration without losing anything of its heart and intimacy.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera

Sunday 6 November 2022

Dvořák - Armida (Wexford, 2022)

Antonín Dvořák - Armida

Wexford Festival Opera, 2022

Norbert Baxa, Hartmut Schörghofer, Jozef Benci, Jennifer Davis, Stanislav Kuflyuk, Jan Hynk, Rory Dunne, Gerard Schneider, Josef Moravec, Thomas Birch, Andrii Kharlamov, Libuse Santorisova, Chris Mosz, Josef Kovačič

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 2nd November 2022

Harking back to the standard 19th century operatic tensions involving war and love, based on Torquato Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata during the time of the crusades, you would think that it shouldn't be too difficult to make a version of Armida exciting and dramatic. Dvořák's dynamic music in his final opera certainly lives up to the drama, expressing high passions of love and betrayal where the stakes are high between the opposing forces of Christian and Saracen armies. Add in some magic, sorcery and an Act II finale that includes a swooping dragon to stage a dramatic escape at a critical point and this seems tailor-made for the 71st Wexford Festival Opera's Magic & Music theme. Any yet, something is lacking in this production.

It's definitely not Dvořák's music. There is no fake Eastern exoticism here, there are no romantic light arias; it's straight ahead drama and high passion on a war footing. Ismen, ruler of Syria and sorcerer, is however under no illusions as to the limits of his powers to make Princess Armida love him. He knows she loves another, but he and King Hidraot, the father of Armida, believe that she is better placed to infiltrate the enemy camp and use her magic powers against the mighty forces that have already gathered to take the city of Jerusalem. Armida however has other ideas having been bewitched herself by the appearance of the knight Rinald out hunting. There is powerful vocal writing to match these emotions, not least of which is the inexplicable passion that grips Armida and leads her to side with the enemy.

And yet, much of what passes for drama in the first two acts feels detached from the characters and more like symphonic colouring and scene setting as characters define their position and plan their course of action. Director Hartmut Schörghofer doesn't have any great ideas to make it visually more engaging as a human drama, keeping it in a First Crusade (1096 - 1099) setting, using the backdrops for projections of locations with the principals and choruses filling a mainly bare stage, often singing outward. Norbert Baxa's rousing conducting makes this sound terrific and the singing is outstanding, and that proves to be more than enough for a satisfactory presentation of this rarely performed work, but you are left feeling that it could do with a little more action or activity. And contemporary relevance, possibly.

There really isn't much to help the audience engage with the predicament at hand, the festival theme of Magic & Music taken a little too literally here and not enough attention given to the human side, or to the reality and scale of the war being played out. You can hear it ok, not least in the fine singing of Jennifer Davis as Armida and Stanislav Kuflyuk as Ismen, and the impressive choral work certainly suggests the might of the Christian forces on one side and the women of the court of King Hidraot on the other. The set relies on a mirrored background cutting the stage diagonally to visualise the divisions, with screens that open up and supply depth on one side, and computer generated projections of the army camp on the other. A huge dragon on the screen swoops down and explosions of magic do a little to match the content, but it still feels distanced and stage operatic.

You might expect the opera to pick up after this pre-interval magical intervention by Ismen, but the sorcerer for some reason leaves Armida and Rinald to wander and wonder in an enchanted garden in the third act. It doesn't really work musically or dramatically in any sense of taking the opera forward - feeling more like an operatic convention to have a romantic interlude - and here the director also fails to find a way of making this engaging or even capitalise on the visual splendour and magic that such a scene offers. Projected computer graphics are used and, like the movies when they are overused (Avatar came to mind in this scene), it lacks a sense of real substance, a sense of reality. Perhaps if you are seated lower and at a better angle it might have looked more enveloping (the accompanying images seem to testify to that), but from the left of the stage and above, the mirrored effect wasn't visible.

The final act should bring about action and passion, and musically it really did. Down in the orchestra pit Baxa and the Wexford Festival orchestra delivered the rolling punches, the fearsome chorus of Crusaders - superbly managed by Andrew Synnott - even though only a representative handful, completely gave the impression they could overrun Jerusalem themselves. The principal singers raised their game also, striking blow after blow. Partly however because there was little conviction behind the buildup of the previous acts to merit it - in the dramatic content of the opera as much as in the stage direction - it still appeared to fall short of what was needed to make this opera work.

Still, any opportunity to see a rare Dvořák opera performed live is an occasion to relish, and although it is imperfect in conception and with death of composer in 1904 there was no opportunity for revision, it didn't disappoint in a fully orchestrated live performance. The timing was a little bit off between orchestra and chorus in the opening scenes, but there were no issues elsewhere. I was concerned that conductor might be a little heavy-handed and sacrifice melody for overstatement, but it was wholly appropriate for a staged version of Armida, attempting to make those high emotions, passions, conflict and heightened magical content all blend with the intent of the drama, and it sounded terrific in the O'Reilly Theatre of the National Opera House.

The performance certainly revealed some excellent singing. Looking like she hadn't been given a great deal of direction, Armida spent much of it almost looking like she was in a state of trance, but Jennifer Davis sung out those passions impressively. Ismen is a choice role, a rather more interesting figure than Rinald, and it was taken superbly by Stanislav Kuflyuk. Gerard Schneider did what he could with Rinald, but the character is not greatly defined in either the music or the direction. As already noted, but it's worth saying again, the male and female choruses were outstanding, giving the work that extra edge of lyricism and dramatic dynamic where needed.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera

Cellier - The Spectre Knight (Wexford, 2022)

Alfred Cellier - The Spectre Knight

Wexford Festival Opera, 2022

Gioele Muglialdo, Sinéad O'Neill, Thomas Bennett, Monwabisi Lindi, Grace Maria Wain, Erin Fflur, Jennifer Lee, Matthew Nuttall

Wexford Arts Centre - 2nd November 2022

Alfred Cellier's The Spectre Knight proved to be an ideal way for me to start this year's Wexford Festival Opera, the essential place to go every year if you are an opera lover. There you will be guaranteed to see and hear rare works that often haven't been performed in over a century, and almost invariably find that these works are more than worthy of being staged again. Aside from the larger scale works on the main stage, you will find much of interest - and rarity - in the 'pocket opera' performances. And as such we got the opportunity to see Cellier's The Spectre Knight, a 'Fanciful Operetta in One Act', of which no recordings exist, a light and entertaining one-hour piece staged here with much love, care and attention, brightly directed and performed.

Cellier was a contemporary of Gilbert and Sullivan, conducting many of their works and even collaborating later with W.S. Gilbert on The Mountebanks. The Spectre Knight indeed was even first performed as a 'curtain raiser' for Gilbert & Sullivan's Sorceror in 1878, and it plays that part very well. It's not a work that is going to upstage any main act, but within its modest runtime and ambition, it is not unexpectedly filled with bright little melodies and light humorous situations, and even one or two surprising elements, references and allusions that give it a little more character.

The plot of the operetta owes much to Shakespeare, establishing a situation similar to The Tempest, where a Duke banished from his kingdom is living with his daughter in exile, in an enchanted glen supposedly haunted by the Spirit Knight. They aren't entirely alone, the Lord Chamberlain also residing with them and two servants who tend to drink a lot. There are however no young men, much to the disappointment of the Duke's daughter Viola, who has never even seen a young man. Just for added realism, there were no young men in the audience at the Wexford Arts Theatre either. 

It all seems a little bit dubious however when Viola's cousin Otho appears (a 'distant cousin' he hastens to remind us), looking to deceive and take advantage of an innocent young woman who has never met a young man, let alone a handsome one like Otho. He disguises himself first as a friar to put some ideas into her head, grooming the suggestive Viola. Then he disguises himself as the Spectre Knight and, through the telling of his sad fate, manages to win the approval and admiration of all. Viola however is not entirely convinced, even when Otho admits who he is. In truth, Otho has loved Viola for a long time and has come to tell the Duke that his kingdom has been restored. Happy news for everyone.

The Spectre Knight is delightfully played with some updated dialogue and contemporary references by director Sinéad O'Neill, keeping it very much in the spirit of Shakespeare's comedies. There is maybe not a lot that stands out musically in the piano score reduction played here by Gioele Muglialdo, but are certainly plenty of bright tunes that keep everything moving along. A few other melodies from Verdi (Brindisi from La Traviata), and Mozart ('La ci darem la mano' from Don Giovanni) are inserted, although it's not clear if those were there in original or included here for fun, but it's telling that they don't feel out of place. The set was colourfully dressed and creatively directed to make use of the limited space, making this feel fully staged.

Brightly played and brightly sung, played for laughs and played for fun it's hard to fault this on any level. Not only do we get the chance to see and hear some pleasant musical theatre, well-staged and performed, filling in forgotten gaps in musical history, these 'pocket operas' also provide an opportunity for many of the excellent ensemble of young singers who contribute elsewhere to the chorus and supporting roles in the main stage opera to show their singing and performing talent in small principal roles. Jennifer Lee was a charming Viola to Thomas Bennett's Grand Duke and Matthew Nuttall's not at all creepy Otho/Friar/Spectre. Even in the smaller role of the Lord Chamberlan, Monwabisi Lindia managed to confidently deliver Verdi's Brindisi and Grace Maria Wain and Erin Fflur were hugely entertaining as servants/ladies of the court.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera